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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

From 'Forever' to 'Atlanta,' Do Standalone Episodes Hurt or Help Their Shows?

When Amazon’s Forever debuted earlier this month, it announced itself with a kernel of discord hidden within. Viewers reaching the show’s sixth episode found it stripped of its main characters—June (Maya Rudolph) and Oscar (Fred Armisen), a married couple trapped in unchanging circumstances—and instead angling its view in a different direction. “Andre and Sarah,” directed by series co-creator Alan Yang, ferries us into the lives of two realtors who slowly fall in love over a lifetime.

Andre (Jason Mitchell) is a married father who finds his equal in Sarah (Hong Chau), also in a committed relationship. The two real estate agents bond over difficult clients, wine, and terrible food opinions (she hates pizza—don’t ask). It’s easy and natural, a one-in-a-lifetime connection. Eventually their love blossoms into a real and true thing, but the two never quite unfasten from their former lives, or their spouses. The episode was a clever inversion of the show’s thesis: what does it look like when you try to forge forever with the person you are meant to be with but can’t have? It was also a structural aberration more and more shows resort to—a formal and narrative detour that often achieves more in a single half-hour slice than a series does in an entire season.


The standalone episode is a curious, imprecise artifact, reflecting back everything a show is capable of, and everything it isn’t. The trend is creeping into all manner of shows. Atlanta’s most inspired episodes across its two seasons—“B.A.N.” and “Teddy Perkins”— were both standalones. The former parodied BET by having Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) appear on a fictional Charlie Rose-style talk show called Montague. But it didn’t end there. Donald Glover, who wrote and directed the episode, bookended Paper Boi’s interview with satirical commercials that solely featured black people, a world within a world.

The latter, “Teddy Perkins,” will likely go down as Atlanta’s most-talked-about episode, and rightfully so: it was a feat of storytelling that chronicled the aftermath of showbiz horror. Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) travels into the deep south to buy a piano from the reclusive and astronomically talented Teddy Perkins, a past-his-prime singer living out his last days haunted by fame and family, a dark parallel of Michael Jackson’s own final years. Episodes like that are a nifty repackaging of genre expectations: a stylistic trick as much as it is a shock to the narrative’s instinctive movement.

Though standalones disrupt the arcs of their parent shows, they themselves are no longer peculiarities of the medium. During its recent seventh season, the quietly fantastic animated Netflix series Voltron: The Legendary Defender shifted its focus for a single episode: transporting the Paladins into a dream fantasia where they were contestants on a game show that tested each group member’s moral fiber. It was an episode that felt tangential at best. A nice deviation, but one that didn’t propel the show forward so much as it added more solidity to the outline of its main characters. There was also BoJack Horseman’s “Fish Outta Water,” a third-season standout that subverted every element the viewer had come to appreciate about the show by excising all its dialogue—and thus its razor wit. Shows like Master of None (“New York, I Love You”) and, to a lesser degree, Transparent (“The Open Road”) have also experimented with episodic detours of self-discovery.

But what is the purpose of the standalone episode? Does it have one? Critics Kathryn VanArendonk at Vulture and Alan Sepinwall at Rolling Stone have praised such anatomical quirks in BoJack, Atlanta, GLOW (“The Good Twin”), and Breaking Bad (“The Fly”) for reorienting the viewer’s anticipation. “They can be TV at its best,” VanArendonk wrote, “and they’re always TV at its most fundamentally TV—using the space of one episode to play around with a new idea.” Positioned one way, the standalone provides a respite from the linearity of the series—but its existence also implies that viewers need a break. What, then, does that say about the show? And what does it say about what the viewer requires of the show?

Last year, IndieWire compiled an “anti-binge” list titled “10 Great Standalone Episodes You Can Stream Without Watching an Entire Season.” The gist was simple: in our fattened golden age of Too Much Television, you could set your focus on one episode that “offer[s] a convenient non-pilot entry point.” But standalones aren’t necessarily representative of a show—they hint at creative daring, but more often than not skew too far leftfield to speak to the plot’s scale and scope.

That atypicality, though, has its own twist ending: demanding its own re-enactment. I count myself among the faithful who remain haunted by Forever. But after watching “Andre and Sarah,” I wondered what more the show could accomplish by leaving its structure behind altogether. That may sound selfish—really, the show was enough as it was—but even now I can’t help but think of how the concept and texture of “forever” might look and feel if it were anthologized, a la Black Mirror or Easy. After all, no one’s forever is the same. What more might Glover enlighten us with if each episode of Atlanta played with its own framework, adapted a more macabre outlook like “Teddy Perkins” or got more neurotically insular like “B.A.N.”?

I don’t have the answers to those questions; like you, I’m just one viewer. But I bring them up to raise a point—that even as eye-opening as a standalone episode has been known to be, it is often just as damaging. More than anything else, though this may be the fun of TV in the current moment: watching the medium figure out just what it wants to be.

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